Cobalt in food

Cobalt is an essential metal, needed for the health of ruminant animals, such as cows and sheep. It is also needed by various environmental bacteria and other microscopic forms of life that play an important role in the biodiversity of our world.

Bacteria in the stomachs of ruminant animals transform cobalt into cobalamin – the form of cobalt needed by animals and humans.

Who needs cobalamin?

Cobalamin is more commonly known as Vitamin B12. Humans and all non-ruminant animals need cobalamin “ready-made” in their diet. Cobalamin is so important to human health that the human body has a special delivery system just for obtaining cobalamin from the diet, called “intrinsic factor”.

Cobalamin is needed for blood cell formation, and consequently one of the main deficiency effects is anaemia with a decrease in red blood cells. Cobalamin is also essential for healthy brain and nervous system function, as well as in DNA synthesis, fatty acid synthesis and energy metabolism.

Deficiency and toxicity

Cobalt deficiency has been a concern historically in farm animals, e.g., “bush sickness” in New Zealand which was cured by adding cobalt to the fertilisers. Cobalamin deficiency in humans is a realistic concern for vegans and vegetarians. It is becoming a major concern in patients who have undergone weight-loss surgery. Their follow-up nutritional counselling focuses on providing absorbable forms of cobalamin,e.g. as nasal sprays. Patients lacking the “intrinsic factor” need cobalamin in similar forms.

“Bush sickness” (cobalt deficiency) in New Zealand was cured by adding cobalt to the fertilisers

Anything is potentially harmful if you are exposed to excess amounts. This also applies to cobalt, and – to a lesser extent – cobalamin. Cobalt overexposure can be a concern in the workplace, and it is addressed by adequate risk-control measures such as personal protective equipment of the workers. The CI and the cobalt industry are actively addressing health concerns related to cobalt, such as inhalation, skin sensitisation and systemic effects. Additional CI documents are available to address those individual concerns.

How do animals get their needed amount of cobalt?

Cobalt is an essential element for plants and animals (Vitamin B12). Ideal bodily concentrations are actively maintained in tissues and body fluids depending on metabolic requirements. Animals can obtain cobalt directly from the water they drink and the food they eat.

There is no evidence of biomagnification of cobalt (i.e. the increase in cobalt going up the food chain) but rather it exhibits biodilution (i.e. decrease in concentration of an element with an increase in the food chain), particularly in upper levels of both aquatic and terrestrial food chains (Nguyen et al 2004).

What is the cobalt content of your food?

Top groups for Co in the human diet are: milk and dairy products, which account for approximately 32% of the total Co intake; fish and shellfish, which account for approximately 20%, and condiments, sugar and oils, which account for about 16%.

Milk and yoghurt
Milk and dairy products account for approximately 32% of the total cobalt intake

Chocolate contains the highest level of Co, with offal, butter and ice cream also containing high levels in comparison to other foods (ANSES, 2011).

Cobalt content in various foodstuffs

Food Group Concentration (mg/kg)
Bread 0.0115
Breakfast cereals 0.0141
Pasta 0.0016
Rice and wholewheat 0.0020
Sweet pastries 0.0187
Biscuits 0.0222
Cakes 0.0164
Milk 0.0036
Unpasteurised dairy products
Cheese 0.0153
Eggs and derivatives 0.0057
Butter 0.0455
Oils 0.0014
Margarine 0.0079
Meats 0.0048
Poultry and game 0.0049
Offal 0.0906
Cured meats
Fish 0.0049
Crustaceans and molluscs 0.0398
Vegetables (excluding potatoes) 0.0061
Potatoes 0.0088
Pulses 0.0219
Fruits 0.0046
Dried fruits and nuts 0.0297
Ice cream and frozen desserts
Chocolate 0.1391
Sugar and derivatives 0.0068
Water 0.0010
Soft drinks
Alcoholic beverages
Coffee 0.0126
Other hot drinks
Pizza, quiche and savoury pastries
Sandwiches and snacks
Soups 0.0032
Ready meals 0.0108
Cream desserts 0.0224
Fruit purees
Condiments and sauces
Other miscellaneous food

References and further reading


This summary is intended to provide general information about the topic under consideration. It does not constitute a complete or comprehensive analysis, and reflects the state of knowledge and information at the time of its preparation. This summary should not be relied upon to treat or address health, environmental, or other conditions.

Photo credit: National Institutes of Health